Innovation in the construction workplace

Innovation and Various Changes in Heavy Equipment Technology

The big question is, how do you change how one of the world's oldest industries does business? Over the years, the construction industry has been through various changes since the introduction of heavy machinery, with OEMs continually bringing in new features to their equipment to improve efficiency. With all the changes that history has experienced, there's always more room for improvement. This is evidenced by the relatively new development of autonomous and electric construction equipment to reduce carbon footprint, improve safety and efficiency, and increase productivity on job sites.

While autonomous construction equipment remains in the development stages and electric construction equipment has not been widely adapted to the needs of specific jobs, these innovations represent the future of change management within heavy construction companies in the next 20 years or so.

During AEMP's EquipmentSHIFT Conference 2022, the subject of integrating technology in the construction industry to increase the value per dollar in wages was a key topic, with the role of equipment managers to change management being a highlight of the discussion. This session revolved around the following objectives:

  • Discussing the importance of innovation and novel technology in construction.

  • Understanding the role of equipment managers in helping organizations de-risk and strategically deploy new technology.

  • Identifying tactical steps you can take to be a change agent for your organization.

Led by a Built Robotics technology expert, there was a lot to digest from this session. But before we learn everything that makes technology in construction the next big thing, here's a brief introduction to Built Robotics, the company that's at the forefront of integrating technology in construction equipment.

About Built Robotics

Built Robotics is a startup company based in Silicon Valley dedicated to designing and manufacturing construction robots. With an eye on the future and an understanding of today's needs, Built Robotics is committed to providing innovations for the construction industry that will shape tomorrow.

Founded in 2016 by Noah Ready-Campbell and Andrew Liang, Built Robotics has raised over $114 million from major Silicon Valley investors, including industry leaders such as Carl Bass, Justin Kan, and Maria Thomas and corporations such as Next47, Founders Fund, NEA, and Lemnos. Built's proprietary product, the Exosystem, is an aftermarket upgrade kit that enables existing equipment to run autonomously.

The Exosystem takes advantage and improves the use of cameras, GPS, geo-fences, sensors, artificial intelligence technology, and physical barriers to bring autonomy with the help of Built's software. So far, the Exosystem has been tested in real-world environments such as construction sites and open fields multiple times with great success. Currently, the statistics stand at 18000+ hours of operation done with zero safety incidents.

Autonomy in construction is revolutionary, and like any other invention in this industry, the adoption will soon be underway once all major players involved test and reap the benefits.

The Evolution of Construction Equipment

Construction equipment has evolved significantly over the past decades, from the invention of the first backhoe in 1948 to the current tech-oriented backhoes weighing up to 35 tons. This evolution, however, has mostly been limited to machinery that is operated by humans. Construction robots are starting to change this paradigm by introducing autonomous construction equipment.

The first phase of revolutionary change in construction was the invention of steam-powered caterpillar tractors that used continuous tracks in the 19th century. With the improved propulsion, operators could better navigate soft terrains. Next came hydraulics, which dramatically increased power and efficiency in the existing construction equipment, and then the GPS in the late 20th century.

Since its introduction to the public in 1995, GPS has grown in precision to become one of the leading essential technology in the modern world. Initially, it was a challenge integrating GPS into construction equipment since it was not all perfect. Still, with time, things changed for the better, and this piece of tech is one we can't operate without in most settings.

The current phase in evolution is the advent of digital technology in construction. A combination of modern technology and software now allows machines to operate faster, more efficiently, and more profitably than ever before. Construction robots are helping us enter into an era where heavy equipment can manage construction tasks on its own, improving productivity year after year.

Technology in Construction Today

Every industry has to evolve with the times, and construction is no different. Many aspects go into the technology in construction today, but even more could be explored if we only knew how to go about it. That's what Built Robotics hopes to achieve.

By discussing some of the most important elements of technology in construction and how it can be used, you'll see how much easier it could increase productivity and how it'll help equipment managers take that leap of faith towards adopting this emerging and promising trend.

Introducing autonomy into the construction industry is the initial step. Giving construction equipment autonomy makes it easier for contractors to finish projects in a timely fashion, with more resources saved.

Currently, Built Robotics is working with various companies that need autonomous excavators, adding efficiency to the digging trenches for pipelines, electrical cables, and other buried infrastructure worldwide.

You might ask yourself, "How does this benefit my work?" More efficient construction means less commuting time, less frustration during workdays, more control over your schedule, and more opportunities to explore other projects. To give you a sense of why this relatively new technology is beneficial, let's look at some reasons why there's a need for autonomy in the construction industry.

Why Is There a Need for Automation in Construction?

Automation has been tried and tested in most industries, with the agriculture and manufacturing sectors boasting a 16x and 8.1x growth in value created per dollar from 1947 to 2017. Despite the gradual growth that's depicted in the economy, the construction industry falls a little short of 1x at -o.5x in value created per dollar over the same period. This may be due to several reasons, but the main one is the slow adoption of technology in the labor sector. Here are some reasons for the need for automation in construction.

Construction work is one of the most labor-intensive industries, with workers spending up to ten hours per day on mostly energy-draining tasks, limiting the amount of work that can be done within a certain period. On top of this, statistics show that 80% of contractors can't fill skilled labor positions, and this affects even production more during holidays seasons and strikes.

Research shows a 7.3 million shortfall in housing units in the US since the industry can't keep up with the demand for housing. To keep up with the high demand for infrastructure, construction companies need to find ways to increase production. Automation allows them to do this by eliminating some of the jobs that are either dangerous or repetitive.

The extent of implementation will vary depending on how desperate for results you are. However, if your goal is to improve production, there's no better way to do it than by implementing automation. It has worked for the agriculture and manufacturing sectors; why not construction?

The Challenges of Deploying New Technology in Construction

The construction industry has been using and deploying new technologies for years; however, it's important to note that these implementations have not always gone as planned or expected. That's why it's critical to be well-versed in the challenges of deploying new technology in construction if you plan on taking advantage of its benefits.

Here are some challenges facing the adoption of autonomous technology in construction.

Fear of the Unknown / Knowledge Gap

Fear of the unknown is one reason why people don't adopt new technologies. The lack of familiarity makes it look 'scary' as many may fear that it will take too much time and investment, or they don't understand the benefits. This knowledge gap is what Built Robotics hopes to fill, mainly through equipment managers.

Once the necessary know-how on everything related to the tech has been achieved, the skillset can be transferred to other employees for them to successfully implement change on-site. Once all people involved are educated on this, your construction business will be better placed to achieve higher efficiency and profit margins.

Change Management

Change can be hard, but it's necessary for the survival and profitability of any business. Organizations that want to stay ahead of the competition should be willing to try things outside their comfort zone. Most will find it challenging to change the norms of running a business, and that's why new construction tech needs someone who's not afraid to venture into the unknown, only that this time, Built Robotics will be a valuable guide.

The change needs someone who can drive adoption, problem-solve and communicate feedback to the service providers. Equipment managers are at the center of this disruption, with the most responsibility for ensuring smooth operations across company projects. When new technologies like drones, 3D modeling, and automation arrive on the scene, they're the ones who can lead adoptions.

Misaligned Incentives

In most cases, project teams are focused on execution rather than cost and schedule. They may be incentivized to spend more time achieving a goal, but there is little incentive to save money or time. Though both the incentives and business models for technology deployment are misaligned in the industry today, some companies have found success through innovative ways of incorporating technology to improve productivity.

Solving this mismatch will take time, but it will happen when project managers give technology a try. For example, big data analytics has helped track costs and resources during a project's lifetime and identify trends that can help prevent costly errors from happening in future projects. Likewise, construction robots are cutting costs and saving time by eliminating the complete dependency on skilled labor in construction. It's worth the investment!

Continuity Between Projects / Disruptive Implementation

Disruptive implementation is a term used when new technologies are implemented into an industry. For example, the internet has been disruptive because it changed how we think about information and how businesses interact with customers. As a result, many industries have been forced to change as well. Construction is no exception. The introduction of computers, for example, has had a significant impact on the construction industry by improving productivity and reducing errors, but there have also been other impacts that have led to some challenges.

Since each project is different, introducing automation in construction machinery may break the continuity of an existing project which can cause delays or complications. This may make the adoption of new ways of handling daily tasks feel like starting over. In addition, workers may not always be familiar with implementing the new technology due to limited time for learning and completing the project, which can slow down adoption even further.

The Equipment Manager's Role in Construction

There are five primary categories of roles in construction: design, manufacturing, project management, operations, and engineering. The role of equipment managers falls under the project management umbrella. Equipment managers are responsible for ensuring that all the equipment that contractors need to do their work arrives on-site when it's supposed to and stays on-site until it's needed again.

It's for these functions that equipment managers can steward the adoption of autonomous technology in construction equipment. Innovation, for decades, has always presented solutions to existing challenges, and the construction industry has gained a lot from it. One of the major roles of equipment managers is to identify the opportunities that innovation presents and source the solutions that fit their business use case.

Below are some of the significant 'superpowers' of equipment managers.

Long-Term Orientation

An equipment manager ensures that the company has the right equipment and supplies to complete the job and keeps it in good working order. This equates to a long-term orientation where they must consider what will be needed in the future as well as today.

Therefore, an equipment manager's role is to invest in ideal equipment and execution formulas across a portfolio of projects over several years. The goal is to minimize downtime, increase safety, and improve productivity.

A key part of long-term orientation is evaluating potential risks related to operational failures, such as accidents and injuries at work sites and low p[roduction. An equipment manager needs to pay close attention to anything that might lead to any of these scenarios, like poorly maintained machinery or poorly planned work processes. They need to evaluate whether these risks have been appropriately mitigated and, if not, discuss solutions with stakeholders who can implement them.

Centralize Sourcing

A construction project is not complete without the proper equipment to get the job done. An equipment manager is responsible for procuring, maintaining, and organizing the tools needed for a project. They know how to balance price, quality, and timeliness to supply their company with what it needs at an affordable cost. They are, therefore, the single point of contact for construction solutions providers and suppliers.

The logistics of coordinating equipment on-site saves time and money because a general contractor doesn't have to deal with all these companies themselves. The equipment manager sources solutions and helps the project teams to implement the solutions through education. Once the solutions have been tried and tested in the field, the project teams report back to the equipment manager, bringing in production data, equipment telematics, and feedback.

With these findings, the equipment manager can contact the solutions provider for a full analysis. This direct back-and-forth communication between the equipment provider and the solutions provider builds better relationships, encourages collaborations, and prompt responses.

Ability to De-Risk for Project Teams

Project teams don't have to worry about making procuring decisions; this task belongs to the equipment manager. As a result, amidst production or efficiency challenges in construction, project teams can focus on what they do best: design and build while the equipment manager sources solutions, including digital technology, that can help avert the challenges. This takes the risks of trial and error away from the project teams since equipment managers are better conversant with purchases and negotiations with vendors. The team can be focused on their core competency, which is not purchasing the right gear, only making use of what's been made available to them.

Scope the Right Tool for the Job

If you're an equipment manager working in the construction industry, you know that there is a wide range of tools on the market. Some are designed for specific jobs, and others can be used for various purposes. And with a broad view of the project portfolio, you have valuable insight into what tools are needed. You may provide recommendations to purchase new or refurbished tools or to lease new ones when they aren't necessary. Introduce new solutions -- like automation -- to help cope with challenges such as high demand and low production.

So when it comes to technology, you will know what works and what doesn't, helping the project teams make better decisions on when and where a certain technology is appropriate. For example, it's more efficient to use autonomous technology on lengthy projects than on small projects.

Opportunity for Impact

With the right will and energy to try out autonomy in construction, here's what equipment managers could potentially achieve in terms of equipment, labor, and data.

Equipment

Automation and other productivity tools allow for cost-effective operation and production without sacrificing quality. Additionally, there's an increase in the utilization of autonomous machines since they can work 24/7, which further decreases the time spent on projects and increases profitability over short periods, allowing you to pay off any equipment fast.

Labor

One of the major changes that autonomy introduces into the construction industry is an increase in labor productivity. With these systems, operators can handle more equipment and also potentially scale the ladder in their careers as they gain skills related to automation.

Automation also eliminates the reliance on surveyors on large projects since the accuracy of the GPS and autonomous control leaves no room for errors. This allows contractors to redirect the spending on labor to the equipment that has already proven profitable in operations.

Data

Automation technology comes with features that give you real-time data on everything related to an assigned task. For example, Built's Exosystem gives you an estimated time of completion whenever you hand it a task, allowing you to make a clear plan work better and centralize operations. The data collected also helps you make informed fleet management decisions as well as have better benchmarks for estimations. To understand how all this works in a real-world setting, below is a case study where the role of an equipment manager came into play.

Case Study

In late 2021, Bechtel Corporation tasked Built Robotics' autonomous construction technology with digging trenches for MV cables on a 700-acre site for a utility-scale 140MW solar project in Texas.

Key Objectives

Ensure Safety: Built Robotics was to demonstrate the efficacy of robot safety architecture for on-site implementation.

Validate ROI: Determine the final cost and productivity compared to traditional excavation methods.

Verify Quality: Ensure the trenches dug autonomously meet the quality standards and are usable for burying AC cables.

Takeaways

Clear scope and objectives: the equipment team used an understanding of the technology to establish clear, achievable goals for the pilot development.

Internal communication: based on the pilot outcomes, the equipment team produced a white paper with the analysis to communicate outcomes internally.

Use central perspective to find opportunities: with a view across the entire project portfolio, the equipment team identified necessary projects for additional deployments.

Looking Forward: Steps to Putting Autonomy into Practice

Involve Operating Groups

Get buy-in early from construction teams and encourage them to try the new tech in actual field settings. The best way to do this is by identifying the right projects that automation could work on, and finding one or two pilot projects will help the members involved understand what you're trying to achieve.

Understanding the Product Requirements

Work with the operating groups and the autonomy solution provider to ensure everyone is aware and understands the task requirements for successful implementation.

Commercial Focus

Focus on creating business cases with measurable performance metrics to achieve gains. Remember to set realistic goals and expectations, as well as check the metrics to ensure you are at par with your projected schedules.

Align Incentives

Equipment managers should support and align company goals to facilitate learning and effective deployment of the new technology to avoid conflicts due to misaligned incentives.

Autonomy in construction looks promising. With all the benefits that come with it, starting your journey today with a solutions provider like Built Robotics is a no-brainer for those needing autonomy. The Exosystem is rented out for about $3000 - $5000 monthly, depending on the hours it operates. The renting system allows rooms for upgrades and replacement, which benefits your operations in the long term. At Boom & Bucket, we bring you this and more topics related to technology and innovation in the heavy equipment industry. Being a top marketplace for used and certified-owned heavy equipment, we support the innovation and believe that positive change is inevitable.

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